Review – Counterinsurgency Warfare

Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice
By: David Galula
New York: Praeger Publishers, 1964

David Galula’s seminal work, Counterinsurgency Warfare, is one of the most oft-cited works on the subject.  However, it has recently fallen into disfavor and become one of the most maligned works as well. Much of the vitriol aimed at Galula’s work comes from its linkage to the controversial U. S. Army Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, and the equally controversial notion of population-centric counterinsurgency. This modern review of his work is, in part, an attempt to place Galula in his proper place in the lexicon while dispelling some myths surrounding his work and exposing some errors in his detractor’s arguments.

One thing that General David Petraeus was adept at was controlling a situation. When he was the Commander of the Combined Arms Center (CAC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which included the Command and General Staff College (CGSC), he saw an opportunity not only to begin building a team to help him construct counterinsurgency doctrine, but also an opportunity to educate mid-level officers on counterinsurgency.  One of the boldest moves General Petraeus made was ordering 1500 copies of Galula’s then-out-of-print Counterinsurgency Warfare[1] for use in the CGSC curriculum.[2]  This brought on a renaissance for Galula’s work which spanned far beyond the halls of military academia, but it also brought with it a notion that Galula’s work was the fount of population-centric thought since FM 3-24’s chief proponent, General Petraeus, had emphasized Counterinsurgency Warfare’s importance.

Others in the Petraeus’ inner circle, like David Kilcullen, Montgomery McFate, and John Nagl, began to selectively use portions of Galula’s work not only in the crafting of FM 3-24, but also in broader works in conjunction with other scholars in developing the notion of population-centric counterinsurgency. Population-centric counterinsurgency proponents often hang their arguments on passages in Galula where he states, “A soldier fired upon in a conventional war who does not fire back with every available weapon would be guilty of a dereliction of his duty; the reverse would be the case in counterinsurgency warfare, where the rule is to apply a minimum of fire.”[3] Population-centric proponents are often quick to combine this passage with Robert Thompson’s emphasis on winning the “hearts and minds” of insurgents.[4] However, this neglects the kinetic aspects of both works and creates a false narrative regarding the roots of the modern conception of population-centric counterinsurgency. This misconception has gotten so bad that it has led John Nagl to conclude that the historical British counterinsurgency success in Malaya was due to the British adoption of a largely non-kinetic “hearts and minds” campaign.[5] The historical facts contradict such an assertion but facts do not provide much of an obstacle to the population-centric movement.

Critics of Galula offer equally flaccid reasoning and argumentation. Many opponents of population-centric warfare have become disenchanted with Galula for the wrong reasons. Most point to either the historically narrow viewpoint from which Galula views counterinsurgency, or his overemphasis on non-kinetic counterinsurgency practices. The first criticism is ridiculous for, if taken to its logical extreme, almost nothing written on counterinsurgency has any value for current and future counterinsurgents since all thinkers on the subject write in the confines of the period in which they live and are colored by their own experiences. The second criticism is patently false and this myth will be debunked presently.

In fairness, Galula does note that the insurgent draws a lot of power from splitting part or all of the population away from supporting the government[6] and that the insurgent is better able to get away with acts of violence aimed at the population[7] but this does not mean that there is no kinetic emphasis within Galula’s work.

The importance of the insurgent cause, too, cannot be understated. Galula notes the primacy of the cause in any insurgency arguing, “The first basic need for an insurgent who aims at more than simply making trouble is an attractive cause.”[8] The insurgent also has an inherent strength in propagating the cause through propaganda as insurgents can more easily lie than counterinsurgents.[9] If the counterinsurgent government is caught in a lie, then it feeds into the insurgent narrative while the reverse is not true.

One of the most important observations Galula offers is his theory regarding the two paths an insurgency can take. One he dubs as the “orthodox pattern” for a communist insurgency involves five steps: 1) the establishment of a party and a cause; 2) creating a united front; 3) engaging in guerilla warfare; 4) transitioning to movement warfare; and 5) annihilating the remaining opposition and consolidating power.[10] The process is expected to take a long time to develop and requires stamina on the part of the insurgents to see the insurgency successfully through each stage.

Galula identifies the second insurgency type as a “shortcut pattern.” In this case the insurgent begins with a cause but immediately launches into “blind terrorism.”[11]  Galula defines blind terrorism the same way in which random terrorism can be defined today. The goal for the insurgent is to cause as much fear as possible in the general public in order to create a crisis of legitimacy for the central government. If the people begin to feel the government cannot protect them, then the insurgents will have an easier time inculcating some of their other claims of government ineptness.

Once this phase is complete, the insurgent shifts to selective terrorism by targeting low-ranking government officials, including “policemen, mailmen, mayors, councilmen, and teachers,” in order to further separate the government from the people.[12] After this, the pattern merges and follows the normal orthodox steps starting at guerilla warfare.

What is most interesting regarding Galula’s analysis is that it led him to assert that there were two critical vulnerabilities within each type of insurgency but they occurred at dissimilar periods. Both types, and, in fact, Galula argues all types, are vulnerable early on in what has come to be known as the proto-insurgent phase. When the insurgency is just beginning, attempting to gather strength around a developing cause, the counterinsurgent can step in harshly and apply some draconian measures to destabilize the leadership, dissuade membership, and disrupt communications which will all but ensure that a proto-insurgency cannot develop into a full blown insurgency. This is best exemplified in the recent Iranian cases where, despite massive violations of human rights, the Iranian oligarchy was able to cruelly crush the proto-insurgent democracy movement.[13]

The shortcut or terrorist pattern is most vulnerable early on especially when transitioning to selective terrorism but then experiences a sharp decline in vulnerability even through the guerilla and movement phases. The orthodox pattern is most vulnerable in the transitioning phases from guerilla to movement. This is due to the fact that when the orthodox insurgents transition from guerilla tactics they open themselves up as visible targets. If the insurgent has not garnered enough conventional power and the counterinsurgent still has the will and material to prosecute effective maneuver warfare, then the insurgents could be setting themselves up for a route. Such an incident recently played out in Sri Lanka where the long-time insurgency of the Tamil Tigers was almost completely destroyed by conventional forces when they began acquiring small ships, planes, and artillery, and they attempted to transition to more conventional fighting.

David Galula does emphasize the importance of people in counterinsurgency warfare but people matter in any form of warfare.  He offers some novel non-kinetic ways for diffusing the insurgency, mainly through undermining the cause. In one case, he simply argues the counterinsurgent should make a list of the insurgent grievances and comply with as many as possible.[14] In this way, the cause may be so undermined that the insurgency loses cohesiveness and dissolves. But Galula is not the population-centric, non-kinetic, hearts and minds advocate that the proponents of this modern counterinsurgency model want him to be.  He devoted a lot of his research to finding the vulnerabilities in different types of movement to kinetic action. Ultimately, it is in this way that Galula offers much for everyone to use in a counterinsurgency fight.

Dan G. Cox is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. His current research interests are identity/human terrain and conflict, armed nation-building, counterinsurgency (especially the indirect approach), terrorism, strategy and military planning, operational art, and futures.  Follow his blog, Boots on the Ground: Security in Theory and Practice, at e-IR.



[1] Having substituted the original foreword by Robert Bowie for one by John Nagl, Praeger released a new edition of the book in 2006.  See David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2006).

[2] Dan G. Cox and Thomas Bruscino, editors, Population-Centric Counterinsurgency: A False Idol? (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combat Studies Institute Press, 2011), 2.

[3] David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, foreword by Robert Bowie (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1964), 95.

[4] Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experiences from Malaya and Vietnam (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 1978).

[5] John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[6] Galula, 1964, 7.

[7] Galula, 1964, 23 and 29.

[8] Galula, 18.

[9] Galula, 14.

[10] Galula 44-58.

[11] Galula, 58.

[12] Galula, 59.

[13] Dan G. Cox, “A Test Case for Counterinsurgency Theory,” Small Wars Journal (7 February 2010).

[14] Galula, 103.

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